Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Freedom's Dusk: India at 65

This morning will bring unfurling of flags, marching troops, speeches, families sitting around television, Facebook messages announcing unending love for India by Indians living all over the world, special issues and new pledges: This is India's 65th Independence Day. Our relatively new country has now come of age, the freedom's generation has truly passed: The country has now been handed over to a generation who never had to toil to earn the freedom. For most of them, as for me, 15th August is a holiday, a day to celebrate and cheer for, but mostly to sit at home and do nothing, a reminder may be of great events but something I did not have to work for. This generation, therefore, will have to invent India all over again, one on their own image and imagination, as the nation we knew in the past is slowly fading away with the liberation generation. It is our turn, a responsibility - to define the country anew.

To start with, we may have to recognise that India is an experience and an idea, rather than a defined piece of land, which can be chopped and changed. The freedom generation created an idolised Bharat-mata, a mother goddess to be added to the long line of our mother goddesses, something we lived with. However, this, in fact, alienated us from our country: We imagined it to be as gracious, tolerant and forgiving as our own mothers and always expected it to give us our sustenance, our luxuries and our indulgences, without asking anything in return. Today, it may be our 'ask not what your country can give you, ask what you can give to your country' moment: It is time for us to recognise that our country is us, it is our collective will and imagination, our identity but at the same time made of us. It is time for us - in summary - to come of age.

Also, the liberation generation defined the country in ancient terms, a land of Vedas and Ramayana, of mythic heroes and tales; it is time for us to confront the true history and re-imagine the nation. The challenge for Indian freedom was to define India, in the face of imperial denunciations such as 'India is no more a country than the Equator', famously by Churchill, the greatest of the late Victorians. The leaders of the time needed to find the unity in diversity, a common strand that will bind the great country and its millions together: They invoked and invented the ancient Indian spirit to do the same. In many ways, our challenge now is the opposite: To recognise and celebrate the diversity, of the various strands that live together believing in the common dream of India as freedom's melting pot. In fact, our greatest danger comes from succumbing to the rather dated idea of a monolithic India, and limiting our imagination to a fixed notion of Indian-ness.

Finally, we also must step beyond the realm of imagination and get real. We have created two or more Indias: One that became free and celebrate its independence today, but the other, which forever remained in chains, burdened by poverty and despair, chained and disenfranchised. In the fervour of nation-building, we somehow lost sight of the people who make up the nation. We owe them no favours, just an acknowledgement that what we claim to be isn't possible without them. We can't be free without their liberation, prosperous when they live in crushing poverty and knowledgeable when they live in ignorance. In short, we are them. It is hypocritical to expect the world to recognise us when we can't recognise half the people who share our identity. Today is the time for such recognition.

In short, today is an opportunity to come of age. We have somehow taken our freedom as granted, our greatness as a given. We have forgotten that for a long time, we were a subject nation crushed in poverty and despair. We have allowed demagogues and the corrupt to take over the public sphere, retiring ourselves in the cozy insincerity of Facebook patriotism and EMI and other preoccupations. It is time for us to recognize that freedom can not stand still: That our country is us, each one of us. It is not a flag, a song, a fridge magnet, but a living and breathing entity made of living and breathing entities. Also, that Indianness is not an entitlement, but a responsibility: A responsibility we are reminded of at least once a year, such as today.

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